World Cup 2022: U.S. Soccer alters Iran flag to support women’s rights movement, then backtracks amid backlash

A soccer fan holds a flag from Iran prior to the World Cup group B soccer match between Wales and Iran, at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan , Qatar, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
A soccer fan holds a flag from Iran prior to the World Cup group B soccer match between Wales and Iran, at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

DOHA, Qatar — U.S. Soccer sparked a geopolitical storm here at the 2022 World Cup by altering Iran’s flag in social media graphics ahead of a meeting between the two nations in a decisive Group B game.

U.S. Soccer said Sunday that the alterations — which removed the Islamic Republic emblem from the green, white and red flag — were intentional, and were a show of “support for women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.” They drew thanks on social media from citizens fighting for those rights, but roiled the Iranian regime a few days before Tuesday’s match.

As Iranian authorities caught wind of the graphics, backlash began to spread, mostly in online comments, but also in official circles. And on Sunday evening, with tension brewing hours before a U.S. team training session, after what a U.S. Soccer spokesman called “internal” discussions, the posts containing the graphics were deleted.

They were initially posted amid ongoing demonstrations that have swept across Iran since the September death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who'd been arrested for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely. The nearly unprecedented wave of dissent against the oppressive Iranian regime, and in support of women's rights, prompted a swift crackdown by the country's security forces. At least 450 citizens have been killed, and over 18,000 arrested, since the protests erupted, according to the advocacy group Human Rights Activists in Iran.

U.S. Soccer officials chose to express their solidarity without consulting U.S. players or men’s national team head coach Gregg Berhalter, a U.S. Soccer spokesman said. They consulted Iranian American experts, but did not consult the U.S. government, two sources told Yahoo Sports. A U.S. Department of State spokesperson confirmed in a statement that there was “no coordination on this action."

The altered flag appeared in Twitter and Instagram posts less than two hours after Friday’s game versus England. It featured the Iranian flag’s tricolor scheme but scrubbed the emblem that typically sits in the center of it. At least one graphic also appeared to scrub the “takbir,” the white script at the bottom of the green and top of the red on the flag, which translates to “God is the greatest."

That scrubbing angered some Iranians. U.S. Soccer has not heard directly from Iranian authorities, but Iran's semiofficial Tasnim News Agency reported that Iran’s soccer federation would file a complaint against U.S. Soccer with FIFA, claiming that the U.S. federation “disrespected the national flag of Islamic Republic of Iran.” (FIFA did not respond to a request for comment.)

Other Iranian state-affiliated media accused U.S. Soccer of “removing the symbol of Allah” from the flag.

By Sunday afternoon in Qatar, U.S. Soccer had restored the official flag to its Twitter banner photo, which had previously displayed the altered flag. A U.S. Soccer spokesman said that this — to only use the altered flag temporarily — had been the plan all along.

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But on Sunday evening, the federation seemed to be in damage control. Chief communications officer Neil Buethe paced outside the team’s training facility at Al-Gharafa, speaking on the phone, an hour before two players were scheduled to meet with reporters at a news conference.

Shortly before the news conference, which was delayed, federation officials decided to take the posts down. A spokesman said, though, that they stood by their message in support of the women fighting for rights in Iran. When asked why the posts were deleted, the spokesman said: "I'm not gonna get into specifics. We made the decision."

The spokesman said that USMNT players and Berhalter were not involved in the decision to delete the posts. When asked at a news conference whether this was true, defender Walker Zimmerman said: "That’s correct. We didn't know about it until now."

Berhalter, though, is often consulted on many non-soccer decisions surrounding the team, including those pertaining to media coverage, and including this month in Qatar. He is scheduled to speak at a news conference Monday.

The atmosphere at Sunday’s news conference, meanwhile, was tense. Zimmerman and fellow defender Tim Ream chose words carefully. They were asked a half-dozen soccer questions, but also a half-dozen questions about the federation’s social media posts and the situation in Iran. They reiterated multiple times that they “support women’s rights,” as Ream said, and they “empathize” with the Iranian people, but they’re focused on “preparing for what is a crucial game.”

At one point during the news conference, Iranian reporters in the front row with their hands raised accused USMNT press officer Michael Kammarman of silencing them, by not calling on them. When one finally got a question, the last of the news conference, he said: "I just want to point out, media officer of U.S. national soccer team should respect international media. This is World Cup, this is not MLS Cup."

The edginess continued as the USMNT’s 8:30 p.m. training session began. As the open portion of it concluded, one communications staffer yelled at another. It’s unclear if the tension has penetrated the players’ bubble, but the atmosphere around them was uneasy.

Berhalter has largely avoided speaking on politics and human rights at this World Cup. On Thursday, when asked about rainbow armbands ahead of the England game, he vaguely cited a team-wide social justice campaign, then said: “In all honesty, right now, when we're in the thick of the tournament, we're in the office all day, working and preparing. Now, for us, the focus is on the game, and that is: How do we beat England?”

After Friday’s 0-0 draw, when asked about the political backdrop of the Iran game, he said: “I envision the game being hotly contested for the fact that both teams want to advance to the next round, not because of politics or relations in our country. We're soccer players. We're gonna compete, they're gonna compete, and that's it, really.”

The game kicks off at 10 p.m. local time (2 p.m. ET, Fox/Telemundo) on Tuesday, with the U.S. needing a win to advance to the Round of 16.